Editor’s note: The original version of this story did not note that the law will take effect Jan. 15 for grocers and food vendors. It has been updated to reflect this.
South Lake Tahoe City Council adopted an ordinance to ban the use of plastic bags for customer products at retail stores in a 3-2 decision Tuesday.
Councilwoman JoAnn Conner and Mayor Tom Davis were the dissenting votes; however, Davis said he would support a similar ordinance that conformed to state law, if one were to be passed.
Although the law will take effect Jan. 15 for grocers and food vendors and Oct. 15, 2014, for retailers Oct. 15, council members and city staff said the issue will undergo further discussion, as people with varying opinions came to weigh in on the ordinance at the Tuesday meeting.
The pinnacle point of debate at the meeting was that, without a mandated cost on recycled paper bags, grocery stores would have to absorb the cost from paper bags.
According to the California Grocers Association, plastic bags cost about 1 cent per bag, while paper bags usually cost 6 to 12 cents or more.
A letter submitted to City Council by the CGA stated that banning plastic bags and not requiring a fee to customers to use paper bags would cost grocers on average an additional $60,000 per year.
Using the most plastic and paper bags than other industries, grocers have the highest stake in plastic bags, industry representatives said.
Nonprofit stores that sell donated items are exempt from the ordinance and so are bags used to hold prescription drugs from pharmacies.
Mike and Kim Schouten, owners of Grocery Outlet in South Lake Tahoe submitted a letter to council echoing the statements of the CGA.
In the letter, the owners claim the cost of using only paper bags would be an increase to their business expenses equal to the annual earnings of two to three full-time employees.
Although the ordinance states a fee on paper bags is allowable, grocers made the argument no store would impose that fee due to competitive nature.
“We are in such a competitive business that no retailer is going to charge for that,” CGA spokesman Dave Heylen said.
The prohibition on retailers distributing paper bags for free was stricken from the original ordinance after the first reading Oct. 1.
“Without regulating all single-use carryout bags consumers are not encouraged to use a reusable bag and instead simply switch from one type of single-use bag to another single-use bag which provides no environmental benefit and increases operational costs for retailers,” the letter to council stated.
The ordinance states the city would like residents and visitors to use reusable bags.
Councilors stated because of the emissions from making plastic bags as well as the non-biodegradable materials they are made from, banning plastic bags from retail stores would benefit the area’s landfills, Lake Tahoe and all around trash collection.
Other arguments included possible health hazards from bring-your-own-bag practices.
According to an article published on www.foodsafety.gov by Laura Gieraltowski of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, people will have to be mindful when using reusable bags. If they aren’t washed properly or left in a high-temperature place, they can breed bacteria from food. Also, reusable bags for groceries should not be used for anything except groceries.
Councilwoman JoAnn Conner said the notion that plastic bags are better than reusable bags is not true because many reusable bags are made with plastic materials and last longer in landfills. She added that she does not think they are sanitary.
“The problem is the people who don’t (wash their bags), and you may not necessarily see that bacteria,” Conner said. “The majority of people don’t wash them regularly.”
Davis reiterated his stance from the Oct. 1 council meeting in which the first reading was adopted, as he said he did not see a visible problem with the plastic bags.
Councilor Hal Cole supported the ban on plastic bags but not the fee to the customer.
“I don’t think being against a tax on a consumer is anti-business,” Cole said. “(To) fine a consumer, that’s not business-friendly.”
Cole also said there may be charges that are too high for paper bags that cause profit issues for the businesses.
“I don’t understand why this can’t be factored in with cost increase.” Cole said. “I think that’s offensive to consumers. I would rather have the retailers amortize the cost of whatever this is going to cost into their product and give them an incentive. I’d rather to incentivize than punish.”
The council said they will try to conduct informal surveys to see what effects the ordinance will have on local businesses, and it is not impossible that the ordinance won’t come back for more discussion later on.
City Manager Nancy Kerry said it would benefit all parties with a stake in the ordinance to have further discussions.
“We can certainly … hold workshops and seek other input, reach out to the business community and find out how it’s working,” Kerry said, adding sometimes ordinances can have unforeseen factors arise.
Kerry said the variety of perspectives should draw more input from people to whom the ordinance applies.
Environmental issues were the catalyst of the ordinance to ban plastic bags, which began about two years ago. Similar ordinances had been brought to council before but were not adopted.
Angela Swanson said she wanted to see the ordinance approved but also keep a close eye on what it will do to the local industries, and she said the main issues for her were environmental.
Swanson also said paper bags are just as bad environmentally because they contribute a significant portion of landfill material.